A day before the beginning of a high-profile sexual abuse lawsuit in Waterbury civil court, the Judiciary Committee heard public testimony Monday on a measure that would prospectively eliminate the statute of limitations for such cases.
Currently, a childhood victim of sexual assault has until 30 years after the time he or she becomes 18 to file civil action against their abuser.
Tuesday is expected to mark the beginning of the first suit brought against the late George Reardon, a Saint Francis Hospital doctor accused of having sexually abused hundreds of children over his long career. His case has been a driving factor in legislation proposed to eliminate the statute of limitations for sex abuse crimes.
Because of cases like Reardon’s, Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, has been unsuccessfully trying to kill the state’s civil statute of limitations for years.
But this year Bye came to the table with what she called a big compromise — unlike previous efforts, this year’s proposal is prospective. That means if adopted, the legislation would only affect victims of crimes committed after the measure becomes law.
And while Bye admitted the measure would not affect many of the individuals she started out trying to help, she said Monday that almost all those victims have expressed support for the measure. It’s better to get something on the books now to protect future victims, she said they told her.
Brad Hotchkiss, a Branford resident who was sexually assaulted by a family member for years as a child, told the committee the same thing when he testified at the public hearing.
Hotchkiss said an older cousin molested him from the time he was 13 until his senior year in high school. But it took him until he was 30 years old to come to terms with the abuse, he said. He urged lawmakers to consider how difficult it can be for sexual assault victims to quickly come forward.
“Please understand, under the current statute of limitation, if a person doesn’t have their realization until their early 40s or later, and it takes them 10 years to recover to the point where they can confront the perpetrator legally, their recovery will be incomplete,” he said in written testimony.
Hotchkiss said he was fortunate that his realization began before the statute of limitations had expired in his case. While he was still eligible to bring civil action against the offender, Hotchkiss said the man had no money. Regardless, he felt a sense of closure when the perpetrator took responsibility for his actions, he said.
It’s not uncommon for victims of childhood sexual abuse to make claims much later in life. New Britain Sexual Assault Crisis Center Assistant Director Kimberly Shellman told the committee that of the around 300 victims aided in the last three months between 50 and 60 percent had been abused more than 30 years ago.
But even before the hearing began Monday, Bye said she had already received literature from representatives of the Catholic Church, indicating that, despite her compromise, they would not be supporting the measure.
Bye said she didn’t understand the continued opposition. At last year’s public hearing on a similar bill, which would have been retrospective, Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference Director Michael Culhane urged lawmakers to make any such change “prospective and not have any retrospective effect.”
This year Culhane said the bill is still a step in the wrong direction, despite its prospective nature.
“It’s counter society’s desire to more quickly recognize the signs of abuse and to report sexual abuse of minors at the time it is suspected or known to authority,” he said, adding that there is already an unlimited time frame to bring a suit against a convicted perpetrator.
The bill would create two separate classes of victims, he said. One class, those who file suits against a private company or a non-profit, would have direct access to Superior Court. Meanwhile, suits brought against the state would be directed to claims commissions, he said. It’s about fairness, Culhane said.
Along those lines, Culhane said he was also testifying in support of another bill. This one would eliminate the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which shields towns and the state from lawsuits regarding the sexual abuse of minors by public sector employees.
The bill would allow victims to file claims against state and municipal employees as well as boards of education, he said. It protects all children without segregating them into separate victim classes, he said.
But even should that bill be adopted, Culhane said the conference would still oppose a bill to end the statute of limitations. When he testified, Bye asked him why the church was opposing the measure when no other large non-profit groups like hospitals came out to testify against it.
“I have trouble understanding why an organization that does so much good for victims, so strongly oppose a bill that victim advocates support,” she said.
Culhane said his main focus for the day was to voice his support for the bill to eliminate the sovereign immunity but suggested that 30 years is already quite a large window of time to decide to bring a civil suit.
The Judiciary Committee has until April 15 to vote on the bill.